This is something I’ve felt strongly about for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever laid out my arguments in detail. Spoilers ahead! (Not that I imagine this blog has many reads for whom Hobbit/LotR spoilers are an issue.)
First, and most obviously, the Hobbit is shorter. Shorter isn’t always better, but with longer books, it becomes more important that the author really knows what they’re doing in terms of pacing and keeping the readers interest over hundreds of pages. Lord of the Rings fans seem to mostly agree that while the book has many strengths, being a page-turned is not one of them.
Second, the Hobbit is arguably more influential:
- Notice that Dungeons and Dragons is called Dungeons and Dragons and not Dungeons and a Dark Lord Who Never Actually Appears On Screen.
- In The Hobbit, the point of the adventure is to acquire treasure, and along the way the protagonists acquire magic items by defeating monsters. This element is missing from Lord of the Rings, yet it’s crucial to much of the fantasy fiction and gaming allegedly inspired by Lord of the Rings.
- The Hobbit introduced us to Gandalf, one of the greatest wizards in all of fantasy fiction, probably second only to Merlin. Lord of the Rings introduced us to Gandalf, the Jesus metaphor (or maybe an angel, if you really know your Tolkien lore). Again, fantasy work allegedly inspired by Lord of the Rings generally sticks to following The Hobbit here.
- Again with the character classes: in The Hobbit, Bilbo is explicitly the party’s “burglar,” i.e. thief or rogue depending on which edition of Dungeons and Dragons you’re playing. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo has no useful skills except that the other members of the Fellowship think he’ll be better at resisting the One Ring’s influence, but he fails even at that in the end and needs to be saved by a Deus Ex Machina.
Compared to this, what did Lord of The Rings contribute to the fantasy genre? Well, there’s half-orcs. The One Ring is a classic example of a MacGuffin, but personally I prefer stories that don’t have a MacGuffin or at least aren’t so heavy-handed about it. Lord of the Rings’ most important contribution to the fantasy genre is probably how it influenced the idea of the Evil Overlord, but while it’s an important trope, it’s less important than The Hobbit’s contributions and, as noted above, Sauron never actually appears on-screen.
However, the most important reason The Hobbit is better than Lord of the Rings is The Hobbit is more realistic about human motivation and the consequences of war (this may actually explain why The Hobbit has been more influential). Lord of the Rings, infamously, has a simplistic good vs. evil narrative, which has been criticized in everything from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s The Sword of Good to Michael Moorcock’s Starship Stormtroopers. What’s less widely recognized is how much better The Hobbit does in this regard.
In The Hobbit, the main characters’ motivation is simple: treasure. And once Smaug is killed, the humans, dwarves, and elves almost end up killing each other over how to distribute the treasure. This is averted only when attacking goblins force the three armies to ally against them. In the resulting battle, Thorin (the leader of dwarves) dies, as do the two youngest members of the original party Kíli and Fíli, whose deaths serve no real purpose. Again, because treasure. Contrast Lord of the Rings, where no important characters die unless it’s dramatically appropriate.
Even the straightforwardly evil characters in The Hobbit, the goblins and Smaug, have a satirical edge in their portrayal. Smaug is a satire of human greed, and it’s hard not to notice he’s not so different from the dwarves. And the goblins’ crimes are human ones: slaving and inventing devices for killing and torture (Tolkien tells us “it is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once.”)
Yeah, Lord of the Rings tries to say something about temptation and power… but most of this turns out as quasi-Christian allegory, with villains like Sauron and Saruman effectively being Christian demons and Frodo as the everyman being tempted by Satan. It isn’t as obtrusive as in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and I wouldn’t rule it being possible to use such tropes to good effect in fiction, but I still prefer The Hobbit’s version of evil.